Tucson’s restaurant scene was in its usual state of flurry, flux and flex in 2016.
We saw some longtime institutions bow out, newcomers blaze new trails and, sadly, some prime restaurant real estate remain cold and empty.
A few noteworthy losses we suffered
- In May, Chef Albert Hall shuttered his renowned Foothills restaurant Acacia Real Food & Cocktails on Skyline’s Gallery Row. The move came nearly five years after Hall had moved Acacia from its St. Philip’s Plaza home. Also in May, we lost Dolce Vita Italian Restaurant on East Broadway, which had been in business in Tucson since 1977, and the 20-year-old Sushi Hama on North Oracle Road.
- Award-winning pizzaiolo Chris Bianco closed the doors on his namesake pizzeria on East Congress Street in September. Pizzeria Bianco had been open just over two years, but Bianco said parking woes and the lack of a patio prevented him from giving Tucson the experience diners had at his Phoenix restaurants. His protegé, Scott Girod, plans to open his own pizzeria, Anello, 222 E. Sixth St., in late January or early February. Bianco, meanwhile, is in early talks to open a restaurant downtown.
- World of Beer, a pantheon to all things brewski, shuttered in September. Tucson was not the only city to lose its store; two others in the Phoenix area — all operated by the same franchisee — closed, and the Florida-based company yanked franchises from several other operators throughout the country. In October, Scottsdale-based Wasted Grain, which fancies itself a Prohibition Era-style bar that serves a menu of sandwiches, salads and bar bites, took over the space at 350 E. Congress St.
- Summer was a bad season for restaurants. We lost Buddy’s Grill at 7385 S. Houghton Road — the second location of the family-owned restaurant whose original location on East Grant Road was open from 1989 to 2011. The Flagstaff import Proper on East Congress Street put up the closed sign in early June, as did the original Speedway location of the Ray Flores-owned Sir Veza’s Taco Garage. The second Tucson location of Sir Veza’s does a hopping business at Tucson Mall.
- A pair of Tucson Chinese fusion restaurants closed almost simultaneously in April. China Thai on East Tanque Verde Road stopped serving its popular menu of Chinese-Thai fusion about the same time as downtown’s Rice House China Thai at 54 E. Congress St. The Hawaiian-inspired PokeZone Sushi is expected to take up the downtown space in March.
- In late September, Tucson’s blues and brews bastion Boondocks at 3306 N. First. Ave., closed its doors for good. Owners Cathy and Bill Warner said that after 20 years, they could no longer make a financial go of the place, where blues artists from around the country and our own backyard kept the joint hopping, and the cooks in the Boondocks’ Range Rider Grill had a steady following for their Monday night meatloaf special. The loss was an emotional blow to blues fans and artists alike; it was the only place in Tucson where blues was on the menu week in and week out.
- Also in September, Todd’s Restaurant at Ryan Airfield in Three Points closed for what was expected to be a few weeks of renovations. But owners Todd and Shari Scott were unable to reach a contract deal with the airport authority to reopen in November. The authority is now looking for a new operator.
Some exciting gains to savor
- Tucson Chef Deborah Tenino opened her Latin tapas bar Contigo Latin Kitchen at the Westin La Paloma Resort in the foothills in the spring, about a year after closing Contigo Cocina Latina on River Road. The resort spot has been home to Janos Wilder’s namesake restaurants. Brian Metzger’s Poppy Kitchen closed in 2015.
- Tucson’s biggest Asian buffet, the 12,800-square-foot Lin’s Grand Buffet off South Park Avenue and Interstate 10 on the Southside. It was expected to open by Christmas, but the date was pushed back to this weekend. It will be serving an extensive assortment of Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisine.
- The brother-sister Tucson franchisees of the national Jersey Mike’s sandwich shop chain opened in Oro Valley in early December — their fourth Tucson location — and they promise three more to come in 2017.
- After much salivating and anxious waiting, fans of Barrio Bread saw baker Don Guerra open a shop in Broadway Village in the old Sugar Sweet Bakery spot. Guerra had been baking his bread at home under a state cottage industry license, but the business had grown far beyond his modest cottage.
- Months after Chaffin’s Diner ended a 33-year run at 902 E. Broadway, Tempe-based Welcome Diner opened for business in October. It’s open 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
- Prep & Pastry, the addictive and hip breakfast must-eat, opened its second location in June in the plaza at 6450 E. Grant Road, next to Sauce Pizza & Wine’s new fourth location in Tucson.
- Bisbee Breakfast Club, the popular Bisbee-based breakfast and lunch spot, went on an expansion frenzy in Tucson. BBC Sunrise opened in June at 4811 E. Sunrise Drive and BBC Broadway opened at the end of October at Broadway Village shopping center, East Broadway and Country Club Road. The two joined BBC Ina, 4131 W. Ina Road, which opened in 2011. Mesa got its own BBC in early 2014.
- A year after announcing plans to convert the 4,000-square-foot former home of Amity’s Children & Family Center Dragonfly Gallery at 125 S. Arizona Ave. into a cooking school and events center, chef-owner Janos Wilder (Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails) hosted his first cooking class in March at the Carriage House.
- Also in March, the original Zona 78 pizza and Italian restaurant at 78 W. River Road traded its pizza dough for hot dog buns when it changed its culinary mission. Stray Dogs opened in early March, two months after announcing the plans in early January — which was weeks before longtime Tucson restaurateur Daniel Scordato was set to relocate his namesake pizzeria from St. Philip’s Plaza a mile up the road to the former home of Mr. K’s BBQ at 4911 Stone Ave., a crosswalk away from Stray Dogs.
- Talk about your sweet comebacks. Several years after making a hasty retreat, Krispy Kreme re-entered the Tucson market in April at 5621 E. Broadway. For the next week or two, the traffic on that busy stretch of Broadway was impossible as doughnut-deprived fans filled the parking lot and crammed into the store for the fresh-from-the-oil, made-in-house doughnuts.
- Fast-casual Mod Pizza, out of Seattle, opened three Tucson area locations — at 4386 N. Oracle Road and at 6351 E. Broadway, both in April; and in Oro Valley at 10580 N. Oracle Road in July. They apparently aren’t finished with us yet. The company plans to open a fourth Tucson area location, this one in Marana at West Ina and North Thornydale roads. Meanwhile, still no word on when Blaze Pizza — same concept as Mod — will open its lone Tucson location at 5601 E. Broadway, although construction appears to be inching along.
- American Eat Co. & Market at the old American Meat Co., 1439 S. Fourth Ave., is expected to open in March. The former neighborhood butcher shop will house six restaurant concepts — to be announced soon — a butcher shop and market. The 8,000-square-foot south Tucson building dates back to the early 1950s, when the Islas brothers opened the butcher shop in the Barrio Santa Rita Park. The brothers’ children took over the shop in the 1990s and ran it until it closed in late 2015.
- The family behind breathing new life into the old Wildcat House — Brother John’s Beer, Bourbon & BBQ, 1801 N. Stone Ave. — is resurrecting the Old Pueblo Grill at 60 N. Alvernon Way into an homage to your Mexican grandma’s cooking. John and David Aldecoa, in partnership with family friend Jorge Alvarez, plan to open Abuela’s Cocina Mexicana early this year.
- This spring, Dave & Buster’s is opening at the Tucson Marketplace at the Bridges, off Interstate 10 and South Kino Parkway.
- We’re going to have to wait until the fall to check out Sam Fox’s most ambitious Tucson restaurant project, The Yard, a 19,000-square-foot dining and entertainment venue at the old Grant Road Lumber, 2543 E. Grant Road. Last spring, Fox estimated the project would take until September and would cost around $11 million. It will include Fox’s popular Culinary Dropout restaurant.
- After three years of sitting empty, the 8,700-square-foot former home of Brio Tuscan Grille at the Tucson Mall will finally have a new tenant. Seattle-based Twigs Bistro & Martini Bar could open as early as March at 4500 N. Oracle Road. Officials with the chain say the Tucson restaurant will be its most ambitious since the company launched 15 years ago.
Big empty spaces
The following former restaurants are still vacant, some years after their last tenants called it quits:
- World Sports Grille by Sega in the Foothills Mall, 7401 N. La Cholla Blvd. The 15,000-square-foot video gaming and casual eatery abruptly closed in March 2013, nearly five years after opening. So far, there’s not been even a whisper of someone moving in.
- Old Pueblo Grill, across the courtyard from World Sports Grille, closed within months of World’s opening. Carlota’s Authentic Mexican Cuisine made a brief run for it in 2009; it closed in late summer 2011 and the space has been collecting dust since.
- First it was El Paso Bar-B-Que Co., which seemed to open and close in a blink of an eye. Then My Big Fat Greek Restaurant took up residence in the Foothills Mall building kitty-corner from Barnes & Noble. The Lodge Sasquatch Kitchen, an Aaron May project, took over in late 2012 and lasted a couple years before closing in 2015. The nearly 7,000-square-foot stand-alone building space has been empty since.
- Nimbus American Bistro & Brewery, 6464 E. Tanque Verde Road. The space has been ghostly silent since Nimbus shuttered in January 2014 — ending a turbulent four-year run that saw one founding partner, Bob McMahon, depart a year after the 2009 opening, followed a year later by the second founder, James Counts, who sold his majority stake to an outside entity.
- Black-Eyed Pea/Arizona Ale House/My Big Fat Greek Restaurant, 95 W. River Road, near North Stone Avenue. That poor 5,500-square-foot space has been rumored about and wished upon, but here it sits, empty as a ghost town since My Big Fat Greek fled in 2009 after two years of serving up gyros and spanakopita. At one point, Nimbus Brewing Co. owner James Counts was all but ready to open Nimbus Ice House, a beer-centric restaurant, in summer 2010, but it went nowhere.